URUMQI, China (AP) — Chinese authorities said Thursday that two religious extremists carried out a terror attack at a train station in far-western Xinjiang region by detonating explosives, in an apparent suicide bombing that also killed one other person and wounded 79.
The strike late Wednesday in Urumqi was the third high-profile attack in seven months blamed on Xinjiang extremists that targeted civilians. These attacks, two of them outside the region, have marked a departure from a previous pattern of primarily targeting local authorities in a long-simmering insurgency.
A 57-year-old woman being treated at the Xinjiang Traditional Chinese Medicine Hospital said she had just arrived from Sichuan province and was walking outside the station to meet her son when the explosives went off and knocked her to the ground.
“I saw I had shreds of flesh and blood in my hair and on my clothes. It was terrifying,” said the woman, who would only give her surname, Peng.
The official website for Xinjiang’s regional government said police identified two suspects with a history of religious extremism, including a 39-year-old man from southern Xinjiang.
It did not explicitly call Wednesday’s attack in the regional capital of Urumqi a suicide bombing, but said the two men detonated explosives at a train station exit and both died on the spot.
Chinese President Xi Jinping demanded “decisive” action against terrorism after the attack, which came at awkward time for him, just as he was wrapping up a four-day tour of Xinjiang aimed at underlining the government’s commitment to security in the region. It was unclear if he was still in Xinjiang when the explosions took place.
“The battle to combat violence and terrorism will not allow even a moment of slackness,” Xi said in comments published on the front page of official newspapers Thursday and carried by state television.
The blasts went off about 7 p.m. just after a train had pulled into the station and as passengers streamed out onto a plaza near a bus station.
Another survivor, a man who also gave only his surname, Liu, said the blast knocked many people to the ground.
“There was chaos. Everyone was panicking,” Liu said. Police and firefighters quickly arrived and Liu said the injured were taken to hospitals in ambulances and commandeered taxis.
Earlier reports in state media quoted witnesses as saying the attack also involved knifings by a group of attackers, but the regional government’s brief dispatch – saying police had solved the crime – made no mention of slashings.
Tensions between Chinese and ethnic Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang have been simmering for years, particularly since riots in 2009 in Urumqi left nearly 200 people dead, according to official figures.
Beijing blames the violence on overseas-based instigators, but has offered little evidence. Information about events in the area about 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) west of Beijing is tightly controlled.
Authorities said security was tightened at all transport hubs in the city, which has a mainly Han Chinese population who are distinct from Xinjiang’s native Turkic Muslim Uighur ethnic group.
Train service was suspended for about two hours, and witnesses said the area outside the train station was cordoned off overnight.
But by afternoon Thursday, a public holiday, the train station bustled with hundreds of travelers bringing luggage and waiting in orderly lines. Paramilitary police with rifles and helmets and riot police with bulletproof vests and shields patrolled and guarded positions in groups of about a dozen each.
Street sellers hawked stacks of naan bread, while shopkeepers repaired minor damage to signs and lights on storefronts. One shopkeeper refused to let people bring their bags into his convenience store and held a short, thick wooden pole in front of him.
Photos circulating briefly on Chinese social media sites showed scattered luggage near the station’s exit and a heavy presence of armed men.
The official People’s Daily newspaper’s microblog reported Thursday that the two attackers had strapped bombs to their bodies. That would represent a new form of attack blamed on militants who so far have primarily targeted local officials with crude weapons, including knives and farm tools.
“It would mark a new escalation and start to hint at a worrying sophistication,” said Raffaello Pantucci, a terrorism expert at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies in London.
“However, it is as of yet unclear whether this incident is linked to groups outside, which is what I would say would elevate it to being one of the front lines in Islamist terror in the global sense,” Pantucci said.
Last October, three Uighurs rammed a vehicle into crowds near the Forbidden City gate in the heart of Beijing and then crashed the car in a fiery suicide attack, killing themselves and two tourists. Police quickly cleaned up the area and released few details, and it was not clear whether the attackers used some kind of explosives.
In March, five knife-wielding men and women believed to be Uighurs slashed at crowds indiscriminately at a railway station in southwestern China, killing 29 people.
While Beijing faults separatists for raising ethnic tensions, government critics say restrictive and discriminatory policies and practices have alienated the Uighurs. They say Han people have flooded Xinjiang and benefited from its economic growth while Uighurs have felt excluded.
China has smothered Xinjiang with additional security and imposed additional restrictions on Uighur travel rights, culture and religious practices. That, say Uighur activists, is exacerbating the resentments driving the violence.
“The Urumqi explosion again proves that forceful repression is not a solution to the problem,” said Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress based in Germany.
During his visit, Xi urged government officials to maintain social stability, promote growth, improve living standards and strengthen ethnic unity, according to state media reports.
Xi told officials that the long-term stability of Xinjiang is vital to the whole country’s reform, development and stability.
Associated Press writers Chris Bodeen and Ian Mader in Beijing and videojournalist Aritz Parra in Urumqi contributed to this report.